Southampton carves Liverpool to shreds on early opening goal (video)

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Trailing Manchester City by a point in the title race, Liverpool has to be nearly perfect down the stretch to earn its first Premier League title.

The start to Liverpool’s visit to St. Mary’s was anything but perfect.

Southampton carved Liverpool’s defense to shreds and a wide-open Shane Long finished off the game’s opening goal to put Southampton 1-0 up after just nine minutes.

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In the build-up, the ball was spread out wide left to Ryan Bertrand who delivered a curling ball into the box from a good distance out. It came to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg who boxed out Virgil Van Dijk and got his head to the delivery, and flicked it behind him. Andrew Robertson made the fatal error of overplaying the ball, and Hojbjerg’s header fell right at the feet of a now wide-open Long who poked it past Alisson.

With Champions League play returning midweek before a meeting with Chelsea next weekend, Liverpool desperately needs a result today at St. Mary’s. However, Southampton is on a run of three wins in its last four and has clearly come to play in front of the home fans. Long got free again and nearly managed to put the home side 2-0 up in the 19th minute, but whiffed on a cross with just the goalkeeper to beat.

Breaking down the brilliance of Virgil van Dijk

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He is the frontrunner to be named the Player of the Season in the Premier League, and Virgil Van Dijk delivered a huge moment in the title race on Sunday.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

With Liverpool drawing against Tottenham 1-1 heading into the final minutes, Moussa Sissoko was clean through with Heung-Min Son alongside him.

VVD stood in the way, and he waited until the last possible moment to put Sissoko off and force him to smash his effort over the bar. It was a wonderful lesson on how to defend in a two v. one situation, and he actually injured himself making the challenge but has since quelled any fears he will miss any games.

Liverpool went on to win the game against Spurs and go back to the top of the table, as Van Dijk kept Harry Kane quiet and put in yet another commanding display at center back.

Our crew break down the Dutchman’s brilliance in the tactics session above. Enjoy.

Who’s in the running for Premier League Player of the Year?

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The Premier League Player of the Year is missing its easy winner this go-round.

There’s no Mohamed Salah running away with the scoring record, no Eden Hazard or N'Golo Kante as the clear best player on the champion.

[ MORE: Key games left in the PL season ]

So let’s take a look at where the race stands heading into the final international break of the season.

The contenders

Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool: Like N’Golo Kante before him, there’s a massive underdog status to a non-striker winning the Premier League’s Player of the Year (and you might want to argue that Kante deserved a Ballon d’Or finalist position). Flub against Fulham aside, few Premier League defenders have made their case in the past as well as Van Dijk has this season. Due to his status on a team who has a lot of the ball, it’s difficult to find super gaudy defensive numbers to make his case. Still, when taking into account Premier League center backs to play more than half their teams’ matches this season, no one on advanced stats site WhoScored is close to VVD. He also doesn’t have a “times dribbled past” per-match average on the site.

Eden Hazard, Chelsea: For years, Chelsea has gone as Eden Hazard. The Belgian is unquestionably one of the most talented players in the world, and is effervescent in attack. Sure, Chelsea’s also suffered through periods of head-scratching results and effort — nothing new at Stamford Bridge and he’s one of the only players to be a part of the downfalls of Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, and presumably Maurizio Sarri — but his 13 goals and 11 assists make him the only player to reach double figures in both categories this season. And imagine how high that assist total could be with Alvaro Morata or Gonzalo Higuain finishing at an average or above-average clip.

Raheem Sterling, Man City: At Liverpool a few years ago, it would’ve been accurate to call Sterling, “the kid with the abysmal second touch.” But the Englishman has become better and better by the season, and he’s actually the most economical star in the running for the PL’s Golden Boot; His 2.1 shots per game is less than Sergio Aguero (3.7), Mohamed Salah (3.4), Harry Kane (3.6), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (2.6), Hazard (2.6), and Sadio Mane (2.4). Only Hazard and Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser have more assists.

Mohamed Salah, Liverpool: His average second-half of the season is going to make it difficult for him to repeat as PL Player of the Year, especially considering he has just one goal with no assists in eight matches since Jan. 30 (and four of those were 0-0 or 1-1 draws). Yet it’d be wrong to discount his 17 goals and six assists through 24 matches, and a strong finish could make him a Golden Boot, Premier League, and Champions League winner. That’s not crazy.

Sergio Aguero, Manchester City: Eighteen goals and six assists make him one of four players to combine for 24 goals of production this season, and the 30-year-old may be get sympathetic votes given his surprising lack of honors during a torrential tenure in the Premier League. His three hat tricks should live in the memory of some voters, too, especially since two came against Arsenal and Chelsea. He’s there when you need him, that’s for sure.

Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur: Right in the Golden Boot race despite missing four matches with torn ankle ligaments, Kane has 17 goals and four assists for Spurs this season. Not that the League Cup should come into play in a PL season vote, but Spurs’ star could well be holding silverware in voters’ minds if he hadn’t been hurt before the second leg against Chelsea. Three matches against Pep Guardiola and Man City in the next few weeks will either help or hurt his argument (again, only one of those comes in league play).

FINALLY, “THE WILD CARD” — He’s not going to win this award, and probably won’t be on any short lists besides this post, but spare a though for Raul Jimenez of Wolves. The Mexican striker has been a part of 18 league markers for Nuno Espirito Santo (12 goals, six assists) during his first ever Premier League season.

He’s scored against Chelsea twice, Spurs twice, and assisted versus Manchester United, and Arsenal. Wolves are 10W-4D-2L when he gets a goal or an assist, and 2W-3D-9L when he doesn’t produce magic.

And let’s be honest: Is one of the key players above leading their team to a title as impressive as what Jimenez has done keeping his newly-promoted side in the race for a Europa League place (even given what Wolves spent around him)?

Honestly, he’s in my Top Three with Sterling and Van Dijk. Hazard is probably fourth, with Kane, Aguero, and Salah a bit behind.

Klopp: Liverpool’s defeat of Fulham ‘a brilliant afternoon’

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Jurgen Klopp wasn’t grasping for positivity after Liverpool escaped Craven Cottage with a 2-1 defeat of Fulham and a place atop the Premier League table.

As a matter of fact, he felt great about his team’s performance in the win even after a colossal misunderstanding between Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker nearly cost the side all three points through an equalizer from ex-Reds forward Ryan Babel.

[ RECAP: Fulham 1-2 Liverpool ]

Fortunately for Liverpool, Sadio Mane won a penalty and James Milner converted it to give the Reds their win.

“It is clear at 1-0 if you don’t kill it off that can happen,” Klopp said. “Babel was there that is how football is. They deserved a goal but we deserved three points. A brilliant afternoon I have to say.”

Klopp said his side was hampered by its midweek Champions League defeat of Bayern Munich, and that he is not worried about them moving forward in pursuit of a Premier League title.

“I am not the most experienced manager and I have similar problems after Champions League games,” Klopp said, later adding, “I am not in any doubt about my players nerves. It is about intensity. We go for perfection but it is rare that you get it. Burnley, Munich, Fulham – you have to adapt. People will say we need to be more convincing, but we are at the start of a development, not the end.”

As for the mishap that had the score line at 1-1, both Milner and Van Dijk weren’t looking for excuses. Milner butchered a clearing attempt that put Van Dijk on the hook, and the Dutch defender’s pass back to Alisson was poor.

At the time, it had more than a hint of Steven Gerrard‘s infamous slip a few years back, one of the players of the season succumbing to misfortune.

At least Milner had a sense of humor about it.

“The gaffer told me to come on and calm it down and the first thing I do is slice it and put Virgil under pressure which wasn’t ideal,” Milner said.

“I am not giving excuses,” Van Dijk said. “I should have handled it better. They scored but so did we and we have three points and move back to the top of the table. … We knew it would be tough. We made it difficult for ourselves. We weren’t calm on the ball. We got the three points though and we can now focus on the national teams.”

Liverpool has a two-point lead on Man City, who has played one fewer match but that match is currently the Manchester Derby.

Late penalty puts Liverpool atop table (video)

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  • Mane opens scoring in 26th
  • Ex-Reds striker Babel stars in loss
  • Mane wins late penalty, Milner converts

James Milner‘s 81st minute penalty saved Liverpool blushes in a 2-1 defeat of Fulham at Craven Cottage on Sunday.

The Reds had a Sadio Mane-inspired lead, but had given it back through a comedy of errors Ryan Babel equalizer.

Liverpool goes atop the Premier League on 76 points, having played one more match than Man City (74 points).

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Some lively dribbling from ex-Liverpool man Ryan Babel cued up Jean-Michael Seri for a shot that sailed over the goal.

Andrew Robertson hit a cross too close to Fulham keeper Rico after some fancy dribbling of his own.

Liverpool was asking all the questions when Mane put them ahead, beginning the move on the left wing before passing to and receiving from Roberto Firmino for 1-0.

Mane joins three players chasing Sergio Aguero’s league-leading goal total of 18: Mohamed Salah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Harry Kane.

Mane has nine goals in his last nine PL matches, and 11 in 11 overall.

Liverpool was a bit lucky that a rash foul from Fabinho didn’t earn him as second yellow card and send the Reds down to 10 men at the break.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Fulham did not quit, and looked the better money for a second half goal. A first break saw Aleksandar Mitrovic nod into the goal only to see an offside flag deny the marker.

Babel was at the center of it all, and led a second break which ended with a Alisson Becker save on Andre Franck Zambo Anguissa.

That’s when calamity occurred in the center of the pitch. James Milner mishit a clearance, and Virgil Van Dijk casually headed back toward Alisson. The goalkeeper lost the ball in his feet, and Babel was on the doorstep to slot home.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The stalemate lasted just a few minutes, as Milner converted a penalty conceded when Rico impeded Mane in the box.

Mohamed Salah had a chance to put the match to bed following a Mane-led run, but the Egyptian fired right at Rico.